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Josh Holt

‘Hope in Darkness’: The prison riot that threatened the life of Josh Holt

By Becky Bruce, KSL NewsRadio | Posted - Aug. 1, 2020 at 8:48 p.m.



Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope in Darkness.” Find all episodes at kslnewsradio.com/hope-in-darkness.

SALT LAKE CITY — A class divide between political and common prisoners inside Venezuela’s El Helicoide prison, in part, led up to a riot there that threatened the life of a Utah man.

Josh Holt had been held by the Venezuelan government for 23 months when the prisoners revolted in May 2018. The uprising, its causes and how it finally ended are the subject of the latest episode of his podcast, “Hope in Darkness: The Josh Holt Story.”

A locked gate at El Helicoide served as both a physical and a metaphorical divide between political prisoners, those jailed for disagreeing with the Venezuelan government, and common prisoners, those serving time for “typical” crimes such as robbery, murder, assault and fraud.

Prison officials kept the political prisoners in cells above the locked gate in the prison’s ramping hallway. There, they received more privileges than the common prisoners on the other side of the gate.

On the morning of May 16, 2018, guards unlocked the gate for a planned visitation day, when prisoners could host guests in the hallway.

A political prisoner named Gregory Sanabria, who had accused his cellmate of stealing his Wi-Fi device, stood near the top of the hallway, within sight of a room the political prisoners used as a gym because it had free weights.

His cellmate had connections in another cell on the common prisoners’ side of the gate.

“There are certain prisoners that run that jail on the inside, and the guards just guard it from the outside,” Josh Holt said of the common prisoners in question. “You could kind of see this cell as being one of those. ... There were upward of three, four people that would actually run that cell and tell people what to do, where to do it. ... And two of those people that were leaders in that cell happened to be connected to this one person that Gregory was getting it into.”

That day, another political prisoner who became a friend of Holt’s, Gabriel Valles, said the guards helped set Sanabria up for a confrontation with the people in that cell. He described what happened next as a trap laid to ensnare Sanabria.

“Gregory didn’t realize that they were there, and they ended up grabbing Gregory and throwing them in between two locked cell doors so that no one could come in and no one could go out,” Holt said. “They had one person holding the door so that Gregory was stuck.”

Valles shared video to Instagram documenting the beating Sanabria endured. One eye was swollen shut, and purple bruising covered half his face.

Change demanded

Political prisoners, angered over Sanabria’s beating, decided to protest.

“We saw Gregory for the first time and we were shocked,” Holt said. “And that’s why all these political prisoners started to get very angry, because they weren’t being protected.”

They saw Sanabria’s beating as proof the guards not only wouldn’t protect them — they were actively seeking their harm.

For many, it felt like the last straw.

“There are certain prisoners that run that jail on the inside, and the guards just guard it from the outside,” Josh Holt said of the common prisoners in question. “You could kind of see this cell as being one of those. ... There were upward of three, four people that would actually run that cell and tell people what to do, where to do it. ... And two of those people that were leaders in that cell happened to be connected to this one person that Gregory was getting it into.”

“They weren’t getting their human rights ... they weren’t getting their due process, they weren’t allowed to go to the doctor,” Holt said.

In the past, Josh Holt and his wife, Thamy, avoided getting involved in prison drama. They worried doing so would endanger their own chances at freedom. This time, though, they felt like they could be silent no more. They approached Valles and Lorent Saleh, another political prisoner and human rights activist, and offered to help.

Escalation

Saleh, Valles and other political prisoners recorded a series of videos documenting Sanabria’s injuries and demanding change inside the prison.

“What rights did they want? To be taken to the hospital, because they wouldn’t take you to the hospital. You had to pay to go to the hospital. To be taken to court. You had to pay to get a ticket that said you needed to be taken to court at this day and time, you had to pay for everything,” Thamy Holt said. “So they wanted to reduce the corruption.”

The group started opening the cell doors of political prisoners, letting them out into the hallway. Then they approached the area around the gym where some common prisoners were still gathered.

“But what (the common prisoners) didn’t know was what just happened. They didn’t know that (the political prisoners) were upset with the people in the jail, officers, and the way that they were treating us. They thought that we were coming to them to fight them, because of what happened to Gregory,” Josh Holt said.

Instantly understanding the common prisoners’ perception, the political prisoners signaled their intentions were peaceful.

“And I remember we all held up our hands into a circle to say, ‘No, we’re together.’ And when we united, when they came out of (the gym) and came toward us and we, we collided with them — it was just this crazy feeling of — everyone was just ready to let all their frustrations go,” he said.

Prisoners broke light bulbs and ran loose in the hallways. The prison was no longer under the control of the guards.

Human guarantee

Worried for their safety, Josh and Thamy Holt barricaded themselves inside Josh’s cell with three friends, pushing Josh’s bunk bed up against the cell door.

“Everyone started attacking Joshua,” Thamy Holt said.

Inmates who did not know the couple personally knew about the American being held at El Helicoide. They demanded he come out of the cell.

“They said (Josh) was the guarantee of the situation, that guaranteed that the guards would not enter,” Thamy Holt said. “They threatened the officials, saying that if they came to enter the jail or the cell, or any nearby area that they might have access to us, (the inmates) would kill Joshua.”

“And the next thing I know, (the inmates are) saying if I don’t come out now, that they’re going to come in, and that they were going to kill me, that they were going to throw my blood all over the walls,” Josh Holt said. “They wanted to hurt me and they wanted to show the police that they had me in their hands. If they had this beaten-up American that was bleeding with a knife to my throat, (they thought) that they could get that freedom. All they had to do was take me outside and show them what they had done to me.”

This is the point at which Josh Holt recorded shaky cellphone video and posted it to his Facebook page, pleading for help. The message was shared hundreds of times, grabbing attention and headlines worldwide.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this afraid of my life. It’s completely different than — than at the very beginning (during my arrest) when you know, I was up against the wall and I had cops behind me pointing their guns at me. Because that lasted, you know, 20 seconds. This was a constant screaming, yelling, pounding,” he recalled.

“They began to beat on the doors, to the point that they made a huge hole in the wall,” Thamy Holt said.

“A hole the size of a basketball,” Josh Holt added. “And they did that with just this little hand weight, pounding it on this brick in order to basically break out the lock on my — on my door to break it open and to get in.”

It didn’t work; in the process, the other inmates had bent the metal frame of the door so that it would not open, effectively locking the Holts and their friends inside.

Friends intervene

The couple’s friends inside the prison stepped in to prevent any violence against them. Saleh and Valles argued for their safety. But according to Thamy Holt, the common prisoners were not persuaded until a former cellmate of Josh’s, Leiver Padilla, aka Colombia, got involved.

Colombia, who was charged with murder in the death of National Assemblyman Robert Serra, occupied a unique position at El Helicoide: he served time for a “common” crime, but one with a possibly political motive. He had friends on both sides of the prisoner divide, and he’d gotten to know Josh Holt when they shared a cell.

“Well, that good friendship works, so that this man protected Joshua in the midst of this riot,” Thamy Holt said. “He was one of those who said, ‘If someone touches the gringo, they are touching me.’”

Both groups of prisoners once again united in a common cause. This time, with the Holts’ permission, they decided to use them as leverage. First, they moved them to a new location within the prison.

“They were afraid that the SEBIN (a Venezuelan law enforcement agency) was actually going to come through the roof of my cell to pick me, to get me out of it. Because they knew where I was at,” Josh Holt said.

The political prisoners lobbied for their own release; the common prisoners demanded to be transferred to a facility where they believed they’d receive more fair treatment.

“After fighting with (prison officials) for a whole day and a half, (the common prisoners) were finally given permission to be moved to a new jail. And so everyone was super excited,” Josh Holt said.

“All the common prisoners were put on a red bus and taken out,” Thamy Holt said.

“There were over 70 people that left that day,” Josh Holt said.

Then the Holts realized what media in Venezuela was saying about the uprising.

“The Venezuelan government actually released some type of news stating that there were people inside of the SEBIN that were armed, and that they were going to have to ‘take care of it,’” Josh Holt said.

Their fear: that police and prison guards would move back in, killing any remaining political prisoners, then planting weapons on them to demonstrate they were armed. For Josh Holt, whose wife and mother-in-law said they witnessed Venezuelan officials planting a grenade inside a suitcase to showcase his guilt, it didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Negotiating

Thamy and Josh Holt separated themselves from the larger group and started talking over their options. If they survived, they assumed prison officials would send Thamy Holt to a women’s prison where she would be separated from Josh. They wanted to figure out a way to stay together.

“Before making the decision to leave, the lawyer called me on the phone,” Thamy Holt said. “He called me on the phone and (said), ‘Look, Thamara, there is an offer for you if you decide to (leave) the riot. If he does not decide to participate in the rioting, there is an offer for you. We are going to take you out, but we need to know that you are going to cooperate.’”

Thamy Holt told the lawyer they were willing to surrender themselves as long as they could stay together.

They gave themselves up, but as soon as they went outside the prison, they saw all the common prisoners they thought had received a transfer to another facility. Dozens of them knelt on the ground, handcuffed.

“They had a slogan: From SEBIN, you leave dead — or you don’t leave,” Thamy Holt said.

In other words, inmates saw a stay at El Helicoide as a likely death sentence.

At least one other former cellmate of Josh Holt’s lent credibility to the belief. Claudio Giovanni Jimenez Gomez, aka Buñuelo, was serving time for murder. Lorent Saleh, Holt’s friend, told reporters after his own release he’d witnessed Buñuelo’s murder at the hands of El Helicoide guards.

Saleh, Valles and many of the other political prisoners would eventually win their freedom — though not that day. The uprising, ultimately, did not result in improved conditions for anyone except Josh and Thamy Holt.

Guards moved the couple to an office within El Helicoide, outside of the prison itself but in the same building. They would spend the rest of their prison time there.

“Hope in Darkness” releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Becky Bruce

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